The Sydney Morning Herald | Sydney piano concert The Sonata Project to capture the romance of the salon

My vision for the staging of The Sonata Project, was to provide a kaleidoscope of colour, pattern and texture that is richly decadent.


In the 19th-century mansions of Paris, female leaders of society hosted soirees at which the aristocracy mingled with intellectuals, writers, artists and musicians. In such salons the shy Chopin would perform his intimate piano masterworks, almost entirely eschewing public concerts.

Australian pianist and lecturer Bernadette Harvey will recreate something of that milieu on November 11, turning the Sydney Conservatorium of Music into a salon, with two large canvases by Sydney artist Lara Merret, magnificent floral creations by Myra Perez of the My Violet florist studio, and props arranged by interior designer Lynne Bradley. Harvey herself will wear Romance Was Born outfits.

Australian pianist and lecturer Bernadette Harvey will recreate something of the Parisian salon milieu on November 11. Photo:  Craig Wall

Australian pianist and lecturer Bernadette Harvey will recreate something of the Parisian salon milieu on November 11. Photo: Craig Wall


The purpose of this opulence is to frame four new piano sonatas by Australian composers in the first recital of Harvey's Sonata Project.  Her threefold ambition is to support 21st-century Australian composers, fill a void in large-scale piano works by female composers, and to keep the classical acoustic solo piano recital alive and engage new audiences.

"I adore the instrument," Harvey says. "I've been playing it since I was two, and my love for it hasn't waned. The idea is to keep it relevant, bringing it up to date, and including a much wider audience, a much broader reach into the community."

She is concerned that the traditional recital is increasingly confined to a small number of star pianists who travel the globe. "I've heard it said that the piano is a dinosaur and the piano recital is not relevant any more to young people. I love those recitals, but a lot of the repertoire is of the standard canon and attended by mostly elderly people."

Despite that, Harvey feels positive about the future of the piano. But she recognises the need to engage a younger audience, who she says no longer receive the same musical education in schools and often do not know how to listen to longer works.

Harvey will give the world premiere of new sonatas by three young Australian women and by Ross Edwards, one of Australia's most acclaimed composers. The women are Sydney composer Aristea Mellos, Jane Stanley, who now lives in Scotland, and Melody Eotvo, who is based in the United States.

Women today have largely achieved parity in orchestral numbers and as solo performers, but not as composers.

Aristea Mellos says women could have careers as virtuosi and, particularly, vocalists in the 19th century but often used a male pseudonym to write.

"It begins with Clara Schuman and Fanny Mendelssoh, and then you get the Dame Nellies– people who were able to subvert the rules of class," she says. "The equivalent doesn't occur with composition until the mid-20th century; that's when we begin to see women having their works performed publicly or even accepted into academic institutions as composers.

"So for us everything is just beginning, it's really emergent, and in some ways that makes it difficult because for so long we've been excluded from music history or denied a voice. But things are just beginning to happen for women in the field of composition, and it's exciting."

Ross Edwards is supportive of the salon concept. "I think it's a terrific idea. What she's trying to do is wonderful, and it reminds me of what I tried to do for orchestral music in the late '80s. I wanted to get suitable lighting to create a visual atmosphere which would enhance the music, and it worked brilliantly.

For so long we’ve been excluded from music history or denied a voice. But things are just beginning to happen for women in the field of composition.
— Composer Aristea Mellos

"Then I started putting people into costume," he recalls. Australian oboist Diana Doherty performed his oboe concerto dressed partly as a bird, "and she was totally thrilled and went around the world doing that." Saxophonist Amy Dickson played his concerto as a goddess, cleverly changing costume on stage.

"I think that's what Bernadette is getting at, to recreate the romance and make music into something more than a whole lot of bottoms sitting in a hall trying not to rustle their programs or cough."

Edwards' new sonata, Sea Star Fantasy, is based on a famous and beautiful fragment of medieval plainchant called Ave Maria Stella Maris.  He often uses plainchant as a unifying device, to bring another dimension to the music. "My music is based on the sounds of the environment, but is clothed with all sorts of references to other cultures. Because it is a distillation of the sounds of the environment, I feel I am able to look at the world as an Australian and send the music out with that particular flavour."

Mellos was inspired by a week in Rome. The exuberant first movement is based on a party near the Pantheon, while the much darker second movement recalls a visit to Cardinal Spada's Gallery, with his grotesque collection of deformed children, crucified martyrs and gory biblical scenes. The final movement, Vanishing Point, is inspired by forced-perspective frescoes found throughout Italy.

Harvey wants to take the Sonata Project to other places in Sydney and around Australia. It will be an ongoing series, and she already has people writing sonatas for the second iteration in late 2018.

Although Harvey relishes the many links with women, past and present, in the first concert, she is wary of allowing a gender focus to dominate the Sonata Project.  She doesn't really feel it is necessary – it is hard for anyone to get new works performed today.

Although she could count on one hand the number of large-scale piano sonatas by women in the history of recorded composition in Australia, affirmative action is changing that.

"The University of Sydney has hired a world-famous composer, Liza Lim, to head composition. I think that now women have just got to get on with process of writing, getting more confident and writing big virtuosic works," she says.

"That's what I hope to show in this concert; these works are big, they are bold, they are great to play, and I'm sure they will be taken into the repertoire of Australian pianists – they're that good."

The Sonata Project will be unveiled at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on Saturday, November 11.


Limelight Magazine | Bernadette Harvey: what is the future of classical piano music?

The Sonata Project is designed to capture the opulence and excitement of intimate 19th Century European music salons where great musicians launched new works.  I have orchestrated the overall design of this project including the stage décor.  Props by leading furniture makers together with abundant floral arrangements, frame immersive paintings.  This set will transport the audience into an sensory utopia.


The pianist will explore this question and more through the premieres of four new works in a setting of Lisztian opulence.

How did the idea for the Sonata Project evolve?

The sonata project is my response to three questions: is the piano sonata relevant to composition of the 21st century?; why are so few piano sonatas written by female composers?; and what is the future of classical piano music?

What do you hope to achieve through this project?

I am enlarging the number of large-scale, serious solo works for piano written by Australian women composers. I hope for a time when these compositions are featured in serious piano recital programmes the world over. I’m presenting these new works on a stage adorned by the work of some of Sydney's best creative designers and artists and is my way of showing my respect both for the value and importance of the new works as well as my appreciation for all art forms. Kurt Vonnegut's famous quote sticks with me: simply that “art is a very human way of making life more bearable.” I would add to that, more beautiful.

Bernadette Harvey . Photo ©  Craig Wall , styling by  Lynne Bradley .

What were some of the things you wanted to keep in mind when putting together the programme?

Well, above all to excite the imaginations of the audience. To show them that there is more to musical life than Beethoven and Mozart! And that these sonatas can be as easy to get to know as any of those by the Old Masters!

In choosing the sonata as the compositional model for the project and the concerts, I’ve determined the kind of programme I want to deliver and made my job much easier than it normally is. Programming is an art in and of itself, and a difficult one especially when considering the overwhelming amount of material that exists for solo piano! In terms of the sonatas themselves, I asked the composers to write a large-scale serious work for piano according to their individual responses to the word, Sonata. The programme I will present on November 11 is one of great variety – dark and frightening at times, lush and romantic, exciting and virtuosic.

What is it about the music of each of these composers (Aristea Mellos, Melody Eötvös, Jane Stanley and Ross Edwards) that speaks to you?

Of course it is the shock and the excitement of the NEW, but mainly it is the ethos of the journey it has taken them on. Interestingly, each one was greatly challenged by the prospect of writing a sonata – it has such an esteemed pedigree. They had to think big and bold and virtuosic, and each one has achieved this in vastly different ways. Not one of the women had written a sonata before!

Limelight_BernadetteHarvey_SONATA_Aristea Mellos.JPG

Aristea Mellos

Aristea’s evokes the sounds, colours and moods of her time in Italy – I am attracted to the use of lyricism and compelling rhythmic movement of her first and third movements which are cast in the lush mode of E Flat Minor. The slow movement in particular is evocative, with the ghastly “suffocating” atmosphere of the Cardinal Spada gallery – this movement winds itself up into a glorious, though short-lived, climax.


Melody Eötvös

Melody’s sonata grips me in a malevolent and pervasive strangeness that I imagine to be the “King in Yellow” upon which the work is based. She magically maintains this dark presence throughout, whilst portraying through sound-imagery the unfolding action of the ghost story of the Demoiselle D’ys. Her working out of the sonata form is extremely subtle – she forced me to dig deep into the intricate textures and overlapping thematic material to get at the truth. I enjoyed this challenge!


Jane Stanley


Jane’s sonata is tightly and remarkably designed for a composer whose harmonic language is essentially non-tonal. It is muscular, powerful, gestural and incredibly virtuosic. The slow movement, despite the dissonance, has some achingly beautiful moments brought about by her keen examination of the use of pedalling and other technical devices unique to the piano.


Ross Edwards

And finally Ross’s work, as with every piece I have played of his, expresses the joy of life, positivity, love of and beauty of nature. He has used as his inspiration one of the most beautiful of chants in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Star of the Sea, and its gently mournful arcs are heard throughout the first movement. The lushness of the E flat mode connects this sonata with the first on the programme, Aristea’s, giving the programme a sense of communion. The following movement springs to life in a typically exuberant, rhythmically compelling joyous dance, interspersed with wild bird calls. The cool, quiet moments to me are like being at rest on the floor of a forest, listening to its sounds, and the faint return of the chant is like a dream.

These sonatas are all close to me now. I love every part of each one and I can’t imagine life without them! The composers have poured their hearts and souls into these compositions, and it behoves us as players and listeners to give them profound and wholehearted attention, and to find the jewels which lie hidden within them.

How collaborative was the composition process?

Pretty close, yes, but not overpowering. They all know my strengths and how to play to those. They would send me snippets, which I would comment on – and of course we workshopped them – some in the flesh, others by electronic means, so that there is nothing which the audience will hear that we haven’t worked on together! I compose a little myself, so I am very aware of my role as a presenter, but I think the composers have found it useful to bounce some of their best ideas off me as they push their own boundaries.

What were the challenges in putting this together?

There was of course the question of funding. How to buy these gifted composers the time to work. That’s where the Australia Council comes so splendidly to the rescue of composers such as Melody, Jane and Aristea. A private donor sponsored the piece by Ross, and dedicated it to the love of his life. And of course I am indebted to Tall Poppies and Belinda Webster, who has produced the Sonata Project’s first CD, not to mention my husband Peter, my recording engineer and editor. Since part of my Project was also to construct a magnificent setting – such as Liszt used to organise for his salon concerts – I was fortunate to have the services of Lynne Bradley, who has designed a beautiful stage setting, and Romance is Born which has provided me with unique gowns.

What can the audiences expect to hear in this concert?

They will hear the outpourings of three gifted female composers and one male composer who are taking piano music to a new level in this 21st century. They will also experience some of the luxury and opulence which Franz Liszt used, in presenting his marvellous new music to amazed audiences, and hopefully they will all smile and say: “Classical piano music is in good hands.”

Why is this project important to you?

Because I am a performer first and foremost, and it is musical death for a performer to get so stuck in the old, ‘acceptable’ repertoire that, by the time you’ve discovered what new excitements lie ahead, it is too hard to play it! I also feel as I mature that I want to contribute something of considerable value to the next generation of performers and composers, and to Australia’s cultural identity.

Where do you want to see the Sonata Project go from here?

I see no end to it, for it is a very viable and flexible art form, and will endure as long as good, original piano music endures and as long as there are composers wanting to write for it. Oh, and as long as we have The Australia Council, Tall Poppies, the Conservatorium and… the audiences to support us!

Bernadette Harvey performs The Sonata Project at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music's Verbrugghen Hall on November 11.


A collaborative project has turned the classical music experience on its head.

Reimagining Sonatas for a New Generation with Flowers, Art and Romance Was Born

Published in Broadsheet Sydney
by Jane Albert

A new kind of classical music event happening next month will feature fashion label Romance Was Born, large-scale artworks by local artist Lara Merrett and stunning floral designs from Redfern florist Myra Perez (My Violet).

Called The Sonata Project, it’s by internationally acclaimed musician Bernadette Harvey; an innovative collaboration that marries bold new piano sonatas written by three young local female composers with captivating visuals from established artists.

A pianist who received her first medal at just two-and-a-half years of age, Harvey regularly collaborates with international solo and chamber musicians and has noticed the need to make classical concerts more relevant to younger audiences.

In 2014 she won a grant to explore whether or not the sonata is still relevant in the 21st century. The result is The Sonata Project: three new 15-minute sonatas by young Sydney composers Aristea Mellos, Jane Stanley and Melody Eotvos performed by Harvey, and a sonata by celebrated Australian composer Ross Edwards.

Part of Harvey’s mission was to reach a broader audience, so rather than the usual deathly quiet and often monochromatic experience of classical concerts, she has planned a stunning visual component of the performance.

“I hear a critical voice saying music doesn’t need other things, but I counter that with the fact that today’s society is very visually stimulated. We don’t have the training we used to have in how to listen to music, so we’ve isolated a lot of people. And apart from the visual beauty of art and the floral arrangements, and the gorgeous world-class instrument – a Fazioli – we’ll be using, it’s a way of inviting people to celebrate art,” says Harvey, who also lectures at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Harvey has collaborated with interior designer Lynne Bradley, a former fellow student at The Con, who reached out to Romance Was Born designers Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales. The duo, which has also collaborated with The Sydney Theatre Company, invited Harvey and Bradley to its Sydney factory. “They were very unassuming but such talented, beautiful people,” says Harvey, who will wear four different designs selected by RWB to complement the music. The addition of Merrett’s large-scale canvases and the floral arrangements complete the picture.

“Traditional recitals are kind of stuffy, let’s be honest,” says Mellos, 29, whose sonata will have its world premiere during the concert. “Concerts in the 18th, even 17th century were rowdy experiences, you could bring in your chicken, people were drinking beer, standing in the aisles … It was completely bawdy.”

Mellos began composing her piece years ago while studying at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and says she was initially overwhelmed by the weight of expectation.

Inspiration struck during a Roman holiday in 2014. The first of her three movements is about a crazy party she attended one summer evening in an apartment overlooking the Pantheon. “It was like being in a Fellini film – people speaking five different languages, everyone smoking and drinking and singing Puccini arias; while the noise from the street bounced up from the cobblestones below. It was wild,” she says.

The second movement is much darker and more ominous, the result of a fascinating yet horrific art exhibition she visited in Rome. The third ponders perception, from Italian frescoes’ habit of challenging and playing with visual perception, to one’s place in the world.

“It took years to write but I think it’s one of the strongest things I’ve ever written,” she says.

During her performance Harvey will be encouraging both applause and vocal appreciation, not common at most classical music events. “I want it to be more joyful: hence the staging and clothing. I still love studying the classics, but I do see it as my vocation to reignite some excitement and passion for the music that’s written today,” says Harvey.

The Sonata Project will be performed at the Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music on November 11. Tickets are available here.


Celebration of the senses

I am thrilled to see that a very special project that I’ve been working on, as Creative Director, has made it into the Financial Review!

Bernadette Harvey. Photography by  Craig Wall

Bernadette Harvey. Photography by Craig Wall

Colour your world: what's in vogue this week

by Annie Brown
Financial Review | Oct 6 2017

Expect a fully immersive experience when pianist Bernadette Harvey takes on The Sonata Project, a program of three world premieres written by female Australian composers Jane Stanley, Aristea Mellos and Melody Eötvös, with a fourth work by Ross Edwards.

Intended to evoke the aesthetic and ambience of a 19th-century musical salon in Europe, the concert also features striking furnishings and props, paintings by Lara Merrett and floral arrangements by Myra Perez. Harvey will wear creations by Romance Was Born.

The Sonata Project

6.15pm for 7pm, November 11,
The Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
$13 to $50.